“I just want you happy, healthy, and home once in a while.” As Bev Ladouceur, Laura Dern couldn’t be more earnest. Standing in the kitchen in When the Game Stands Tall, she’s a familiar figure, the noble movie coach’s wife. Indeed, Bev is among the noblest. She’s married to De La Salle High School football coach Bob (Jim Caviezel), noble in his own way and, as the movie begins, overseeing the longest winning streak ever in all sports (151 games). Also as the movie begins, in 2003, their nobility is about to be tested, as that streak is about to end.
Based on a true story, When the Game Stands Tall (and what does it mean exactly, that a game might “stand tall”?) emphasizes Bob’s dedication to his team—and Bev’s dedication to him, cheering in the stands, team logo on her sweatshirt. He’s coached the Spartans for some 25 years, and it appears that Bev’s confession in the kitchen (about what she wants) is instigated by her discovery that he’s rejecting yet another about what she wants is offer to coach at a bigtime university. Though Bev imagines that college coaching will provide more stability, more time for her husband to focus on “home,” that is, to father their son Danny (Matthew Daddario) in addition to coaching him as a wide receiver on the Spartans (it’s not clear how she comes to imagine this), Bob insists that he must remain at De La Salle. He’s needed here, he says vaguely, working with students who don’t have the same sorts of privileges and expectations as those at, say, Stanford.
At this point, early in the movie, Bob sounds exceptionally confident and also exceptionally noble, an effect that is in part a function of Caviezel’s performance, stoic and terse and looking awfully like a variation on the role for which he’s most famous, Jesus of Nazareth. Hailing from Sony’s in-house, faith-based label Affirm Films, When the Game Stands Tall offers Biblical verses (did I mention that Coach Lad is also a religious studies teacher at the school?) and more than a couple of multiple Dick’s Sporting Goods promos. As much as his players, their parents, and the local community in Concord, California all love and worship the streak, Coach Lad and his defensive coordinator Terry (Michael Chiklis) worry with one another about the effects of the attendant celebrity. Just so, the movie supplies them and the team with occasions to be humbled.
This process takes time (the film runs a long two hours) and several forms. It’s hard to miss the effects of race and class differences, though the movie doesn’t name them as such. The white players tend to feel disappointed by their dads: Danny’s upset with his father’s neglect and star running back Chris (Alexander Ludwig) is pressured by his large, loud, abusive dad (Clancy Brown) to break a running TD record. The black players face more existential and more immediate threats. Running back T.K. (Stephan James) has a great dad (Terence Rosemore) and a devoted best friend Cam (Ser’Darius Blain), but still, he lives in a neighborhood characterized by apartments rather than houses, lack of light, and thumping hiphop music.
The movie can’t seem to help itself. The team is shaken by the inevitable consequences of these clichés, as well as one other, the pile-on warning sound of “This is How We Do It,” blaring at a party. Yes, When the Game Stands Tall uses a dead player to humble and inspire his team and coach, who then proceeds to his own humbling and inspiring. You know long before his coronary that it’s coming, as he appears smoking a few—while fretting about his players, of course. That Bev has to witness the attack and then mediate between Coach and his kids, who come to visit him in the hospital, reminds you that she is the saint in this movie (in case you’ve forgotten). She also has to endure his misery at home, the very place she suggested he spend more time. Cue the montage where he can’t manage the barbeque, where he watches the team from afar, where the players fall apart without their skipper.
Coach Lad’s lessons, learned and delivered, focus on the significance of team as family, the support system that never ends. Coach wonders briefly whether he can save these kids in an era of social media, where every kid thinks he’s entitled to be a celebrity. Bev offers the expected bit of support, a story about what she knew about him on their wedding day. “Some people don’t know who they are,” she says, “They just know something is missing.”
And so Coach abandons his momentary reference to a world outside the movie that can’t seem to help itself and returns to coaching. The boys return to game time (it’s worth noting that they’re all two-way players, which means they play a lot). The announcers go back to announcing. The smallest player is inspiring. When it’s hot, Coach Lad squints up at the sky so you can share his point of view of the sun. When the players hit each other, the slamming sound effects are tremendous. And when Bev return to the stands, the utterly wonderful Dern is consigned to yet another series of go-team-go or oh-dear! reaction shots.